‘Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis’ reviewed by M E Mitchell

Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis

Verso, London and New York, 2013. 224pp., $24.95 / £14.99 pb
ISBN 9781844679843

Reviewed by M E Mitchell

About the reviewer

M.E. Mitchell graduated from the University of California, Riverside with a PhD in Philosophy and …


Nancy Fraser’s Fortunes of Feminism offers a selection of her previously published work which, in Fraser’s estimation, represents her rapport with second-wave feminism’s trajectory since the 1970s: its challenge to patriarchal institutions of late capitalism, its absorption in identity politics, and its contemporary indications of a return to radicalism. Fraser describes these themes as “acts in a play”, and indeed, this characterization provides the key to understanding Fraser’s vision of what is truly at stake in feminist theory and politics. While it is certainly too simple to describe the drama she presents as a clash between heroic and villainous feminism, the book is structured around the conflict between Fraser’s critical theoretical approach to feminism and the ‘culturalist’ approaches. Thus, the very organization of the book compels readers to view the era of identity politics as something feminism must overcome if it is to improve women’s welfare.

In its first act, Fortunes collects four essays united in their call for a reconceptualization of the institutions of welfare capitalism vis-à-vis women’s subjugation. These chapters provide an introduction to Fraser’s theoretical orientation; in keeping with the tradition of critical theory, she seeks to contextualize the particular standpoint of feminist politics within a systematic account of economic, social and cultural institutions and practices. Fraser is thoroughly pragmatic in carrying out this task; as she makes clear in these opening chapters, the theorist’s formulations are not objectivistic representations of reality. Rather, the theorist reflexively interprets a social field in which she is participating. Theory must therefore describe and clarify the theorist’s own political interest.

The book’s opening essay, ‘What’s Critical About Critical Theory’, finds that Jürgen Habermas’ social theory fails to do just that. Fraser demonstrates that Habermas treats the family as a prepolitical space, one in which members coordinate their actions communicatively, consensually, and cooperatively. This slips into ideology, she argues, that can materially harm women; it may lead to policies that limit state interference in “personal” matters—such as, say, wife battering. Fraser argues persuasively that the roles and identities available in Habermas’ description of modern state capitalism are not gender-neutral, as his analysis implies. Rather, the roles of worker, soldier, child-rearer, consumer, citizen-speaker and client are thoroughly gendered. Thus gender identity is internal to the functionality of capitalist institutions and, she concludes, “male dominance is intrinsic rather than accidental to classical capitalism.” (38)

‘Struggle Over Needs’ likewise highlights political contestation over the domestic and economic spheres. Here, Fraser is in conversation with a political discourse of ‘needs’ and those who theorize it. Fraser contends that the pattern of ‘needs’ claims in our political discourse reinforces treatment of the economy as a value-neutral sphere of supply and demand requiring minimal interference by political bodies. By contrast, the family is recognized as the vehicle for the transmission of values. However, familial needs, so the thinking goes, should be handled privately; political satisfaction of those claims would be inappropriate and intrusive. Fraser’s taxonomy of oppositional discourses, reprivatization discourses, and expert discourses provides a way of thinking about the ways in which needs-talk symptomatizes the struggle to move the boundaries of the personal, the political, and the economic in an emancipatory direction.

In the midst of welfare-reform fever in the early 1990s, Fraser and historian Linda Gordon wrote ‘A Genealogy of “Dependency”’, which traces the history of the term’s usage in four senses: economic, socio-legal, political, and moral/psychological. They identify two trends in Anglo-American usage of ‘dependency’ from its first dictionary appearance in the sixteenth century: first, the emergence of and increase in the stigma attaching to dependency, and second, an expansion of its psychological application. In a preindustrial context, in which society was organized hierarchically, dependency relationships were regarded as natural for both sexes. The stigmatization of dependency emerged in the industrial era under the influence of the Protestant work ethic and an emerging democratic conception of citizenship. In the economic sphere, male laborers came to accept and value ‘the family wage’, an income that promised them status as heads-of-household while positioning their wives as dependent, thereby also giving rise to the term’s feminine inflection. The psychologistic/moral usage of the term was applied to paupers, whose (deviant) dependence stemmed from a set of individual traits—that is, traits that were not regarded as issuing from institutionalized social relations. These trends have only intensified in the postindustrial era, with unfortunate consequences for women. As in the first two chapters, Fraser draws her reader’s attention to those mechanisms of oppression that are hidden in plain sight, under the guise of the ‘normal’.

‘After the Family Wage’ continues ‘Act I’ themes of institutional critique and reform, but with an eye to discord within the feminist movement that Fraser will thematize in ‘Act II’. Feminists, she argues, must articulate their own vision of how the welfare state should be transformed so that it can meet the needs of citizens in the postindustrial age.

She elaborates seven criteria for gender justice in a reformed welfare state, building into these the concerns of “equality” and “difference” feminists (an inclusiveness that prefigures her later conception of justice in terms of recognition and redistribution). She then evaluates each faction’s particular conception of the emancipatory regimes according to her criteria. For example, equality feminists’ Universal Breadwinner (UB) model would perform equally as well as difference feminists’ Caregiver Parity (CP) model in reducing or eliminating poverty for women. The former accomplishes this by facilitating women’s participation in the workplace, the latter, by providing subsidies to caregivers working within the home as well as options for flexible work out of the home. However, CP would more effectively provide women with leisure time, as women working solely outside of the home are likely to be performing an unpaid “second shift”.

Fraser finds that under either regime, women are likely suffer the same kinds of discrimination they do now, albeit less so. She therefore proposes the Universal Caregiver (UC) model, which aims to bring men’s behavior closer to women’s and thus ‘[dismantle] the gendered opposition between breadwinning and caregiving’ (135). Although her discussion of UC is disappointingly brief, its prophetic character is striking in light of the stay-at-home dad trend in recent years.

Appropriately, the book’s second act opens with ‘Against Symbolicism’, in which Fraser targets a form of theorizing that often supports “culturalist” feminisms. She reiterates her claim that any critical theory must provide a contextualized explanation of women’s experience and interests—for example, the origin and nature of social identities, or the dynamics of social movements. Discourse theory can provide a social-historical account of agency that at the same time makes room for a politics of resistance. By contrast, ‘Lacanianism’ —she is careful to disclose that she is not providing a close reading of Lacan, but rather a reading of the way his work is used—conceives of the social system of signification, including the meanings assigned to social identities, as a monolithic, deterministic, closed system. Obviously, this does not offer feminists much hope for successful resistance to patriarchal domination or sociocultural transformation.

In ‘Feminist Politics in the Age of Recognition’, Fraser’s objections to culturalist feminism find a new expression: assimilation. Fraser argues that feminist politics focusing only on improving women’s economic status, or focusing only on improving women’s sociocultural standing, are inadequate. She therefore aims to integrate both concerns in a conception of justice requiring redistribution of material resources as well as sociocultural recognition. Fraser has elaborated this alternative to identity politics more fully in her book Justice Interruptus, and in Redistribution or Recognition? (co-authored with Axel Honneth). However, here, as elsewhere in Fortunes, it is difficult to locate how these categories hang together, particularly in light of Fraser’s acknowledgment that one cannot simply ‘add a politics of redistribution to a politics of recognition’ (171). To put it in Hegelian terms, Fraser’s mélange does not appear to sublate the opposing moments into a more comprehensive whole. Her assertion that recognition and redistribution concerns are ‘thoroughly imbricated’ does not clarify their theoretical relationship, but only cites their empirical manifestation.

‘Heterosexism, Misrecognition, and Capital’ continues to work out her integrationist conception of gender justice in response to a critique by Judith Butler. Defending her claim that heterosexism is an injustice of recognition, Fraser clarifies that the distinction between redistribution and recognition does not reinstate the orthodox Marxist distinction between material base and sociocultural superstructure. The economic/cultural distinction is not ontological, but ‘social-theoretical’ (184). She is not therefore trivializing heterosexism as a mere manifestation of economic mechanisms. Rather, as an injustice of recognition, heterosexism has the capacity to materially harm victims, to rob them of economic resources.

The final act of Fortunes begins with ‘Reframing Justice in a Global World’, in which Fraser reflects on the implications of the decline of the nation-state paradigm. In a ‘post-Westphalian’ world, where territorial boundaries lose their potency in the face of transnational powers and threats, conceptions of justice must determine not only what constitutes a just distribution of social resources, but also who should receive them. This indeterminacy engenders wrongs of misrepresentation. This notion provides a cosmopolitan dimension to her conception of justice as recognition/redistribution. Claims for representation are the most challenging to adjudicate, Fraser emphasizes, given that they are pressed in an institutional no-man’s-land. Fraser advises that justice at its very limits must fall back on the principle of participatory parity, which can guide us in establishing democratic procedures for determining the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of justice.

Fraser deepens her critique of culturalist feminisms in the final two chapters of the book; however, her emphasis is the promise that an understanding of what has held feminism back will enable its movement beyond internal strife. ‘Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History’ positions feminist successes and failures in relation to its engagement with state-organized capitalism, demonstrating that feminism’s turn away from systematic institutional critique unwittingly advanced neoliberalism’s attack on ‘social egalitarianism’ (219). Fraser contends that it is increasingly difficult, in today’s climate, for feminists to abstain from critiquing market forces that promised them the pride of the family wage but failed to deliver it; it is likewise difficult to maintain their former oppositional stance towards a frayed social safety net that so many now find themselves in need of. ‘Between Marketization and Social Protection’ points a way forward for feminist politics: emancipation. Fraser challenges Karl Polanyi’s account of the pernicious character of market forces that, when unfettered, erode the (benign) social fabric in which they are embedded. As an emancipatory movement, Fraser argues, feminism is not inherently opposed to or aligned with marketization or social protectionism; it occupies an ambivalent space. By weakening the traditional, patriarchal social forms that constrained market forces, second-wave feminism facilitated the rise of neoliberalism. However, armed with its new self-understanding as an instrument of emancipation, feminism is poised to return its critical and political energies to struggling against the oppression produced by those same economic institutions.

In a reading of Marx’s epigrammatical definition of critical theory, Fraser suggests that it is partisan; it seeks to theorize resistance movements in which the theorist herself has an interest. This suggests that the yardstick against which we may measure her work is the insight she provides into feminism’s successes and failures. Fraser’s theoretical schemas are baffling at times—it is unclear, for example, why there are three types of needs discourses, four registers of dependency, or seven principles of gender justice. This is, perhaps, owing to her propensity to avail herself of whatever terms best encapsulate processes of institutionalized oppression. Thinking thus, from the ground up, gives her work a complexity that at times compromises the systematic quality and coherence of her theoretical categories. However, there is no question of the depth and extent of Fraser’s understanding of the forces that keep women down, nor of her ability to articulate these in a way that maximizes her impact. Her critical and theoretical efforts do indeed think through the feminist struggle for equality in a politically efficacious manner. 

13 January 2014

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *